This is a common question more observant people will ask, especially those who are stuck in a workplace setting with someone they clearly see as a psychopath, while others don’t. It’s a logical question to ask – “how did this person even get in here?“, or “how has this person managed to stay here, despite his clearly inappropriate behavior? How does he get away with it?”.
That’s what we’ll try to answer in this post – listing the key ways in which psychopaths firstly charm their way into companies, and then solidify their position once they are there, attempting to make themselves “bulletproof” or “untouchable”.
The psychopathic personality is extremely manipulative, very good at reading others, reflecting back out what they want to see/hear, and exploiting others for their own ends. This is why they are actually quite good at getting into companies, and then ensconcing themselves into the company once they are there.
However, the list of tactics they use is very common and predictable once you know how the psychopathic personality operates, and you know what to look for. They use a combination of glib charm and charisma, schmoozing, politicking and power games to attain and consolidate their position in workplaces.
Let’s look at the main ways they do this below.
Step #1 – Charm Their Way In At The Interview
The first thing psychopaths need to do is conceal their pathological personality and get their foot in the door in a company. They do this by presenting themselves as the opposite of what they are at job interviews. Despite their toxic personality, psychopaths are often very charming and charismatic to people when they first meet them.
Here are some aspects of a psychopath’s charming “front act” that you’ll often see them bring to job interviews:
- They often stride in with a confident, strong swagger, very well dressed, with a broad smile and firm handshake. They’ll be looking to make a good first impression.
- A superficial warmth and charisma the psychopath appears to exude, at least when you first meet them. Designed to get you captivated by them. Psychopaths can be very charismatic; the air can seem to buzz around them.
- A “slickness” and “coolness” that can easily take in more materialistic and shallow people especially. A social ability to “chit the chat” and seemingly do and say all the right things at the right time. Will often appear to be very engaged and engaging socially.
- Their charm and confidence is often characterized by a total lack of shyness, self consciousness, humility or self doubt. It is brazen and not afraid to approach or say anything.
- They’ll be very complimentary about the interviewer, boss, company and surroundings, perhaps suspiciously so, in order to ingratiate themselves as best as they can.
- They’ll often present an impressive looking CV, with extensive accomplishments, status and tenure (actually check up on what’s there though, and you’ll often find discrepancies and deception there with psychopaths).
- For Jobs – They put up a front that can be so charming and engaging that we are easily taken in by them, to the point where we forgo common sense precautions and just let them into our lives (“ah, just give him the job, we don’t need to get references, he’s alright”). Psychopaths are brilliant at charming their way in like that.
- Can appear very funny and captivating, tell great stories, anecdotes etc. Appears very extroverted, outgoing and sociable.
- In short, they can read people very quickly and very well, being everything you want them to be in that moment. Psychopaths are all about manipulating the perception of others, so they will rarely give a poor interview. They’ll be on top form and come across as very likeable, confident, interested and engaging.
Here are some common reactions manipulative psychopaths can generate in people interviewing them:
- “Wow, this guy’s so charming and engaging”
- “Wow, what a charismatic and powerful presence. This guy’s got some force of personality. He could drive us forward.”
- “He/she’s literally perfect for us! They’re the perfect match! We don’t need references; let’s just get them in as soon as possible.”
- “This guy is literally too good to be true.”
- “One could not ask for a better candidate. Perfect. Let’s take him on before the competition snaps him up.”
Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s book “Snakes in Suits” (see Books section for a link) has a great bite-size, ongoing chronological story at the end of each chapter, the beginning of which perfectly depicts how a psychopath can charm their way in at a job interview. The story-line also captures what commonly happens down the line, when more observant people do start to see something is up, and do look into the psychopath’s past, and realize they have a problem. But now the psychopath is firmly ensconced within the company, has power and influence, and can’t be easily got rid of.
Therefore, never let how someone presents to you at an interview make you fall into any of these traps. It’s exactly the type of reaction psychopaths have become experts in creating in people when they first meet them. They can say all the right things, present the right image, play the perfect match – whatever is needed to get their foot in the door.
Lifelong psychopath profiler and expert Dr Robert Hare puts it best in regards to how manipulative and convincing psychopaths can be:
“All the reading in the world cannot immunize you from the devastating effects of psychopaths. Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, conned and left bewildered by them. A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings”.
Dr Robert Hare
Therefore, always follow the full and correct procedure for character and reference checks when employing new people, especially those who come across as especially charming and charismatic, almost to the point of seeming “too good to be true”. It’s often when you dig into the past of psychopaths that their real personality becomes more apparent, which is why they put so much energy into this charming initial “front act” to sway people away from doing this. Don’t be fooled by this and always set and follow proper recruitment standards for all applicants, regardless of how they come across initially.
Alternatively, the company itself may just have a total lack of any recruitment or disciplinary standards, meaning they’ll take on anyone and everyone, and also tolerate them once they’re there, despite their toxic behavior. This offers an easy way in for psychopaths and sociopaths; they don’t even need to charm their way in – the door’s already open!
The British bookmaker Betfred is one such company, and as a result is the perfect example of a psychopathic company, literally infested with Cluster B disordered individuals, because it does no real screening of the people it employs, and tolerates bad people who are already there. Toxic people tend to congregate and cluster together in these types of companies with no recruitment or ethical standards, making the culture very noxious and oppressive, so avoid them at all costs.
Step #2 – Charm Their Way In With Superiors
Once the psychopath has been taken on by a company, they’ll very quickly be looking to ingratiate themselves with superiors, gaining influence and credibility with them.
They’ll be in the boss’s or CEO’s office very quickly and very regularly after starting, again putting up the perfect, friendly, likeable front act to charm and schmooze their way in with the higher ups.
They’re also very happy to jump the ladder with this, often charming their way in, not necessarily with their direct line manager or supervisor (sometimes they might), but two or three or more levels up, with real high “higher ups”. Psychopaths want power and prestige and status, so they will be looking to mix with the real “big shots”, not the lower level managers, who they’ll often contemptuously see as “small fry” and sometimes be in conflict with.
The whole idea behind this is again to manipulate the perception of the really powerful people in the company, which makes it harder for conscientious, well meaning people further down the company to then go to these people when they have concerns about the psychopath, and be taken seriously.
“What are you talking about, I speak to John regularly and he’s great. We regularly socialize and I see no issue with him”, might be the typical response of a higher level manager or CEO who the psychopath has very deliberately sought to charm and “schmooze”, making it more difficult to have them properly dealt with once their real personality starts to become more apparent to those working more closely with them day-to-day.
Sometimes, the psychopath may only be able to create the image of “being in” with higher management – they might make a point to be seen talking with them in front of colleagues – but don’t actually have much influence. Either way though, the psychopath is always concerned with image and managing perception.
Whenever possible, the psychopath will be straight in the office of directors, CEOs and other important people, laughing, joking, charming their way in
Step #3 – Seek Positions Of Power
The psychopathic personality is power fixated, meaning they are constantly seeking to gain power and control in any environment they are in, especially workplaces. When a psychopath’s real personality comes out, you’ll often hear cliches like “dog eat dog” and “do unto others before they do unto you” to justify their behavior and outlook.
They see life as a constant power battle and power struggle; therefore they want to be the one with power over others, rather than submitting to the power of others, as soon as possible in any job. They want to be as high up the power ladder as possible.
Therefore psychopaths will often readily put themselves forward for any promotions into managerial positions, often using the same charm and simulated enthusiasm they used to get into the company initially, to get these promotions.
This satisfies a couple of their cravings:
- It gives them the power they always want over others, feeding their grandiosity and ego.
- It further ingratiates them with the even higher ups, who now see on the surface “how well they’re doing” or “how they’re progressing”
- It means they are the ones who can now start to dominate others, instead of being dominated.
- They can feed more off the efforts of others in some jobs, instead of adding real value themselves (see next section).
- In some cases it may make them harder to discipline and fire.
Psychopaths creating the image of power and influence
Therefore you will always find that psychopaths are seeking to move up the ladder very quickly in any workplace environment. You’ll never find them “just happy” and content with where they are; they always want more power and influence if it’s available.
Step #4 – Feed Off The Efforts Of Good Workers
This is an important one to watch out for. If you observe them more closely, you’ll actually find that psychopaths are not creative and truly productive in a workplace. They add surprisingly little value, and are not what you would call “high performers”. In some very narrow retail or other very controllable work environments with repetitive tasks, they may develop a level of competency, but only through time and repetition and the monotony of the job. Anything more demanding than that, then they actually aren’t very good at what they do.
However, what the psychopath is good at is embedding themselves with true “high performers” and good teams and feeding off their efforts instead. Psychopaths are parasitic in this sense; they feed off the work of others rather than adding real value by themselves.
They might for instance be in charge of a good shop or department, which makes them look good in terms of KPI’s or other performance statistics, but it’s really their team that’s driving that, not them. They’re happy to take the prestige and accolades that come with that though.
Alternatively, they might take the ideas of others and feed them off as their own, again to impress higher ups. Or tap into one or two specific high performers (often inside and outside work), using them to advance their own position, either through stealing their work or manipulating weaker willed people into doing the work for them (psychopaths are surprisingly good at this, to the point where more detached onlookers are shocked, asking ‘how are they getting them to do all that work for them? That’s ridiculous. Can’t she see he’s just using her?’.
Psychopaths parasitically leech off the efforts of others
Again, as always with the psychopaths, it’s about manipulating perception and image and context over content. It just needs to look like they’re doing well and are successful high performers, even though they actually aren’t once you look deeper. The most common way of doing this is feeding off the efforts of true high performers, so watch out for psychopaths latching onto these types to leech off their productivity and bolster their own image within the company.
Our article on screening for workplace psychopaths has some useful criteria for distinguishing between parasitic psychopaths and true high performers.
Step #5 – Take Out Any Rivals
This is where the real toxic nature of the psychopath starts to come out. Pretty much from their first day in a company, you can be sure the psychopath is covertly engaging in some type of scheming, manipulative behavior, trying to plant seeds, cause conflict, deflect attention and set people against each other.
There are many forms this can take; here are just some:
- Lying and deception
- Saying different things to different people.
- Setting colleagues up to fail by miscommunication, misdirection or incomplete work.
- Malicious gossip, spreading lies and other back-biting
- Smear campaigns – a huge one – where they spread false narratives about others, or else deliberately provoke reactions and sneak around gossiping about these reactions to others, trying to paint colleagues in a bad light to others.
- Gas-lighting – where they claims things were said or done when they weren’t or vice versa. A psychological abuse tactic designed to erode the confidence and stability of others. Psychopaths will constantly use this to undermine others and deflect from their own wrong-doing.
- See our article on psychopath workplace manipulation tactics for more points.
How Psychopaths Ruin Companies From Within
“It’s called the smear campaign and it started even before your breakup or the blowup in a work situation…What they’re doing is provoking reactions from you and then sneaking around sharing those reactions with people to slowly show this person is going “crazy”….
That smear campaign is about turning people against you, even your own friends, so you have no support after it’s done”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
The general purpose behind all of this sneaky trouble-making is to take out anyone they see as a rival and threat, to advance their own position of power in the company and continue to move up the ladder unchallenged.
Once you combine this with the other points we made about, you start to see why psychopaths are so dangerous and bad for a company long term. They will take out your best and true high performers, while they continue to move up the ladder, adding little real value themselves, but manipulating and using people for their own ends.
In other words, a company will get the worst of everything. They lose their best staff, who either get sick of the psychopath’s behavior and leave, or get smeared, set up and fired, and keep their worst.
This is why companies that continue to allow psychopaths to fester in their ranks, particularly in management positions, will over time find the overall quality of their workforce continuing to decline. This is the parasitic nature of the psychopath, who manipulates and schemes, but adds little value themselves.
Preventing Psychopaths From Getting Into A Company
Your first line of defense is your recruitment policy. Stop these people getting into your company and you’ll save yourself an enormous amount of hassle (toxic culture forming, politics, back-biting, losing good staff etc).
Here are some ways to do this:
- Always do full character and reference checking of new people you take on. No corner cutting and no exceptions. Do not let someone charm you into thinking they are so perfect for you, that you don’t need to check their past. Psychopaths are experts at doing that.
- Be wary of people who come across as especially charming and brazenly confident in interviews. It’s another tactic psychopaths will use to wriggle their way in.
- Don’t overlook red flags with references. It’s definitely a grey area in employment, but be wary of people providing references who are un-contactable, only neutral references, or references that don’t seem very legit (like they’re a “buddy” of the person, not a colleague or manager).
- Any company that doesn’t bother to do reference checks will attract a high proportion of pathological people like psychopaths, and deserves what it gets in terms of a toxic culture and high staff turnover down the line.
Dealing With Psychopaths Who Are In Your Company
If your first line of defense against psychopaths is your recruitment policy, your second line of defense is your disciplinary policy. If you thoroughly document and remain observant, you can spot and remove these people from your workforce, after which you’ll very quickly find the culture improving (if they’re only an isolated “bad egg”. If your company is full of these people, you have a much bigger problem).
- Documentation – Management need to fully document (and privately encourage anyone working directly under the psychopath to fully document) all instances of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, to build up a case against them to more easily initiate disciplinary and dismissal proceedings. Psychopaths will often break rules and act as though they’re a law unto themselves, so this is a very important first step. All the other steps basically follow on from this as well – documentation is critical.
- Deception – The company must understand, document and clamp down on all forms of deception. This includes sneakier forms of lying like “lying by omission“, that psychopaths love to use, as well as other subtle tactics like deliberate miscommunication, incomplete communication and other such deception that continues to cause issues in the company.
- Gas-lighting – Another very common psychopathic abuse tactic that can be clamped down on by simply fully documenting interactions and events with the psychopath, to confront any attempts at denial and blame shifting.
- Conduct Policy – Rewrite your conduct and disciplinary policy (or employee handbook) to more precisely capture and pin down subtle manipulation and deception tactics often used by psychopaths, to allow more easy escalation of disciplinary and dismissal proceedings. See our suggestions for conduct policies here.
- Schmoozing – Higher level managers and CEOs need to be especially wary of employees trying to overly “schmooze” or ingratiate themselves, especially very soon after joining a company. Their motives are often not sincere, but instead to gain favor, power and influence and also to extract information that can be used for their own ends or against others. Appropriate boundaries and distance needs to be maintained.
- Promotions – Be very careful with promotions – examine the sincerity, honesty and integrity of the person as well as their motives for wanting to progress. Is it out of a genuine desire to grow and provide for themselves and their family, or a pathological need for power and influence? Put the latter type of person into positions of power and you are asking for trouble in terms of how your work culture will look down the line.
Conversely, if you’re in a company where you can clearly see toxic people are tolerated and allowed to fester, and who won’t enforce any disciplinary standards against them, don’t try to fight this. You’ll just get frustrated and irritated, and the psychopath will often flip the script on you, engaging in smear campaigns so that you’re the one who’s pathologized and pushed out. Just look for a new job as soon as possible. A company might choose not to have any standards in terms of the people it takes on and tolerates, but good people can certainly set their own standards and enforce them.
A good mantra here is “Don’t tolerate psychopaths in companies, and don’t tolerate companies that tolerate psychopaths either.”
Move on from workplaces where you see these toxic personality types being tolerated and not dealt with. Work for a better company with a better culture and better quality workforce.